Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sorry, the Golden Ratio is not "neo-pagan"

One of my favorite blogs for "eye candy" and occasional reading is the New Liturgical Movement (NLM).  The NLM's contributors almost always do a great job at showing beauty in liturgy -- architecture, art, vestments, music, and forms -- without sullying themselves with sectarian politics.  Their opinions are usually well-informed too, which is why a recent post ("Just How Golden is the Golden Section?") disappoints me all the more. 

The author, David Clayton, begins with a reasonable and informed argument that the "Golden Section" (known variously by the Greek letters Φ (phi) or τ (tau)) does not play such a large role in architecture and art as common wisdom assumes.  His assertion is supported by more mathematical articles cited in the comments.  However, the essay's final tangent (starting in the middle of page 3) speculates that the emphasis of Φ over other ratios indicates a "neo-pagan" world view, in which "modern man focuses more on what nature is, rather than what nature ought to be."  The author then continues with rambling, absurd numerological speculation:  that the ancients supposedly searched for meaning in the beginning of the Fibonacci series, whereas moderns seek the "ideal" at the series' end (i.e., the limiting ratio of successive terms of the series, which a little bit of algebra shows is Φ), and that this shows that the moderns "cannot see beyond the proportions of the fallen world."  (Wouldn't it mean the opposite?  Φ should represent an evolutionary view which finds the ideal at the Omega Point -- the end of time which is the consummation of all things.)  Clayton concludes with "A modern Christian interpretation of Φ," which makes the absurd claim that Φ represents the fallen material world and should therefore be called the "Fallen" or "Dark Section," rather than the "Golden Section."

The author's most offensive assertion in this essay -- that excessive veneration of Φ is a "neo-pagan" phenomenon -- is most offensive because it is entirely unfounded.  The article cites sources on architecture, art, and mathematics, but fails to cite a single source on what neopagans or "occultists" (i.e., students of the Western hermetic tradition, whom Clayton snidely derides as unworthy of his investigation) believe about Φ.  The author does observe the Pythagoreans would likely favor ratios of whole numbers, rather than irrational (in the mathematical sense) ratios like Φ.  Sacred geometry and numerology in the Western hermetic tradition seems to favor the Pythagorean approach, for example using the Tetractys in correspondence with the Tree of Life.  Irrational ratios do appear, but more incidentally, as part of regular geometric figures or Platonic solids.  Occultists do make use of the pentagram in rituals, but this occurs entirely independently of Φ. 

I'm not qualified to speak about what neopagans believe.  It is a point of controversy how much the 20th-century development of organized Western neopaganism has in common with (in)famous occult figures of the time (see e.g., Wikipedia's article on Gardnerian Wicca).  I would say, however, that both neopagans and occultists tend to be syncretic in their beliefs, and "take whatever they think is good from wherever they can get it."  Interest in Φ by a neopagan or occultist may be no more special than their usual interest in phenomena that relate the macrocosm to the microcosm.  (Clayton himself proposes Φ as an expression of this relation.)  Furthermore, a central premise of the Western hermetic tradition at least is the brokenness of the created world.  Human beings participate in the healing of that brokenness, a process known as the Great Work.  In that sense, the ratio Φ has no more to do with "fallenness" or "darkness" than any other ratio of physical quantities.

Despite my criticism of Clayton's article, I should point out that he presents his conclusions as provisional.  I would encourage him to consider not only evidence from art and architecture, but also from those beliefs which he critiques without understanding.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Theoria and praxis, distillation and inspiration

We love books.  While we haven't quite stooped to keeping books in our oven, our little apartment has long ago run out of shelf space.  Books stack in precarious piles around the edges of the living room and reach for the ceiling on top of shelves.  Many of these are spiritual and mystical books, ranging from the most orthodox of orthodox Christianity (St. Francis de Sales' "Introduction to the Devout Life") to the least orthodox (but perhaps more interesting!).  I've read all of them, some several times, but i can't say that i've truly absorbed the implications of any of them.  St. Maximus the Confessor said that "Theology without action (praxis) is the theology of demons."  I don't think i know any more about demonic theology than i do about angelic theology, so perhaps i missed out on the content as well as the implications!

Anyhow, the point is that i look back on my ~ 15 years of devotional study, and wonder what "progress" i made.  I did certainly mature from a pious but naïve youth to a more open-minded, broadly educated adult (who finally finished school not long ago, after an education of nearly epic length!).  My religious perspectives certainly have changed.  I can't say that i'm a kinder person, that i'm more charitable (not just in the "dropping money in the basket" way), that i'm any closer to getting in touch with the Divine -- but perhaps this is because my work and familial responsibilities demand more attention and resources.  There are those books, though, mocking me.

I was thinking about that this morning when i drew two cards out of the Tarot deck:  Temperance and the Star (the latter link might be a bit NSFW if your boss can't handle nonsexual art nudes).  (I took the images from Wikipedia's depiction of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which i don't use, though i like Pamela Colman Smith's artwork.)  Temperance and the Star both depict a female figure with two water vessels in the midst of pouring.  The difference is that Temperance transfers liquid from one vessel to the other, while the Star pours them out, one upon the waters and the other upon the earth.  One can understand the water here as inspiration or the "stuff" of spirituality.  Pouring it between containers is an allegory of distillation or refinement (compare the alembic); pouring it out is an allegory of divine or heavenly inspiration.  Distillation and inspiration aren't opposites, but they do involve different agents.  The former is the work of the mystic or "spiritual alchemist" who refines received ideas,  extracting out the "aqua vitae" ("water of life" -- the "living essence" of the idea).  The latter comes from above.  The Star's work happens in secret, at night, without an obvious human agent to receive the results.  (Perhaps our mystic slept too soundly and missed a midnight date with Lady Star!)

The previous two paragraphs introduced two dualities: theoria and praxis, distillation and inspiration.  I would certainly be overextending my rhetorical abilities to put them in correspondence.  They do make an interesting constellation of analogies for understanding how the "stuff" of spiritual life flows around and through a person.  Collected inspiration can be refined and purified through the work of Temperance or nepsis (spiritual sobriety -- the virtue keeping one on the hard, long, but ultimately rewarding path).  Theory has practical implications, and practice influences and inspires theory. 

The personal implication is the necessity of patience in one's spiritual growth.  Inspiration comes when it wills, not when i will.  Distilling it is a lifelong internal work.  Careful praxis may take time to work out, so that it forms a partnership with theoria, rather than fighting against it.  (Just because some group is oppressed, doesn't mean one should immediately rush the barricades with them!)  Perhaps this is only self-justification, but it also seems wise to be patient with one's one nature.  If it takes me a long time to gather and to distill, to refine myself and my ideas, then as long as i'm following the path of true spiritual sobriety, i should let things develop naturally.